We have come to expect Pope John Paul II to speak with a voice that is both authoritative and prophetic when the Church hits hard times.
The Holy Father's May 2 apostolic letter Misericordia Dei (Mercy of God) — subtitled “On Certain Aspects of the Celebration of the Sacrament of Penance” — continues this legacy.
One of the letter's primary aims is to correct bishops who have encouraged the faithful to “abandon individual confession and wrongly to resort to ‘general’ or ‘communal’ absolution.” But, as he has done so regularly throughout his pontificate, the Holy Father approaches a discrete challenge from a broad, almost panoramic, perspective.
Repeating his invitation from past addresses and documents to “make every effort to face the crisis of ‘the sense of sin’ apparent in today's culture,” he is, in this new letter, even more insistent in calling for “a rediscovery of Christ as mysterium pietatis, the one in whom God shows us his compassionate heart and reconciles us fully with himself.
“It is this face of Christ,” he adds, “that must be rediscovered through the sacrament of penance, which for the faithful is the ordinary way of obtaining forgiveness and the remission of serious sins committed after baptism.”
This message could hardly have been better-timed. In our day, there are long Communion lines and few confession lines. While the most serious sins have proliferated, the use of confession has almost ceased in many communities. Many Catholics are surprised — or incredulous — when you tell them that common things like missing Sunday Mass or using contraception are considered serious sins that must be confessed before one can receive the Eucharist again.
What happens when confession's importance is ignored for decades? The concept of “sin” disappears. And there's no telling what people will do when they don't believe in sin.
It's a theme that we saw popes pleading with the Church about throughout the 20th century. Wrote Pius XII in 1943: “Let those, therefore, among the younger clergy who make light of or lessen esteem for frequent confession realize that what they are doing is alien to the Spirit of Christ and disastrous for the mystical body of our Savior.”
He was right. As confession became less and less frequent starting then (not starting out of the blue after the Second Vatican Council) the mystical body became more and more tolerant of what should never be tolerated: sin.
This, and not the few lines having to do with sexual abuse, was the overriding concern of the Holy Father's Holy Thursday letter to priests. What he is most concerned with is the very common problem of a crisis in the confessional. He points out twice that those in a state of mortal sin must go to confession before receiving communion.
Then, he continues, in language which gives one the sense of the Pope begging for priests to return to confessionals: “I feel a pressing need to urge you, as I did last year, to rediscover for yourselves and to help others to rediscover the beauty of the sacrament of reconciliation.”
The letter to priests got great play in the United States, because of the mention of sexual abuse. But the Pope didn't say a bunch of pious things and then slip a line in about sexual scandal. He made a plea to return to confession, and put the scandals in that context.
Many dioceses have heard and answered his many calls for more confession — one thinks of the special reconciliation pushes in the archdioceses of Philadelphia and Denver. Others haven't.
As the new millennium begins, the Pope wants the pace stepped up even more. In Misericordia Dei, he reiterates a point he made in Novo Millennio Ineunte:
“I am asking for renewed pastoral courage in ensuring that the day-to-day teaching of Christian communities persuasively and effectively presents the practice of the sacrament of reconciliation.”
If sin isn't real and the sacraments aren't real, we don't need priests at all. If sin is real and the sacraments are real, then, yes, we need to deal with abusers in the ranks. But we also need to stand up very boldly and defend the priesthood when it is being called into suspicion by media hype. More than defend it, we need to promote the priesthood, now more than ever — and promote confession. Souls depend on it.